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How we advocate for children together

19 February 2021, Action for Change

When we speak up we can change the future for generations of children

All children have the right to protection, education, health care, shelter, and good nutrition. But children can’t always speak up in a world where parents and politicians make the decisions that govern their lives. It’s up to us and our supporters to help give them a voice where their future is at stake.  

Save the Children has been ensuring there’s a powerful voice for children for more than 100 years. In fact, our founder Eglantyne Jebb drafted the first document to recognise children’s rights - the Declaration of the Rights of the Child – which was later adopted by the United Nations in 1959. 

Today our focus on creating long-term change for children is just as strong. Simon Henderson, Save the Children Australia’s Head of Policy says although our programs benefit children and families directly, it’s through policy change we can reach millions, even those who haven’t been born yet. 

“If we want holistic system change, we can only do that through sustained advocacy, which leads to reform. Some of this work can take years, but the payoff means that the laws and policies in place to protect children, to safeguard their future, can be in place for generations to come.”

Simon Henderson, Head of Policy, Save the Children Australia

The work needed to achieve those changes can be immense and requires a delicate balance, says Simon. “Public support can form the backbone of a campaign,” he explains. “When our supporters sign petitions to End COVID For All, or to ban arms exports, it sends a strong message to politicians about what change we collectively want to see happen. This coupled with media pressure, private briefings, reports, budget and inquiry submissions, all adds up. It’s important that our supporters keep speaking out and raising their voice for children. It’s the only way we can collectively make a difference.”

“Public support can be the backbone of a campaign”, Simon Henderson. Photo: Save the Children

Australia’s human rights record under scrutiny

On 20 January 2021, Australia appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council, where its human rights record over the last five years was scrutinised through a state-based peer review process, known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 
The review had a huge outcome for child rights, with over 90 recommendations from foreign governments being made to Australia on child rights issues. 

Save the Children Australia first got involved in this process in late 2019 as part of the Australian NGO Coalition, an alliance of over 200 Australian NGOs. We led on the child rights work and served on the Advisory Committee for the Coalition.

“We put in a lot of work over the last year through various stages of the process, drafting the children’s rights section of the Australian NGO Coalition report, preparing a child rights fact sheet, giving briefings to foreign governments, making submissions to the Attorney-General’s Department and more,” explains Simon. 

“We met with different foreign governments to explain what's going on with child rights in Australia, why they should care about it and why it's important for them as a country to raise these issues. There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes."

“The highlight was 30 countries mentioning Australia’s minimum age of criminal responsibility – an extremely high number. There was also prominent coverage of other key child rights issues that we have prioritised in our own advocacy and with the NGO Coalition.”

Simon Henderson

Children as young as ten can be arrested, convicted and imprisoned     

Raising the age of criminal responsibility is a key child rights issue – in Australia children as young as ten can be arrested by police, remanded in custody, convicted by the courts and imprisoned. We are calling for all Australian governments to raise the age to at least 14. This is consistent with recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and medical evidence about children’s development.

Other key recommendations included full incorporation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Australian law and policy, removing reservations to the Convention which allow Australia to detain children and adults together, and development of a National Plan for Children. 
“The next steps in the Universal Periodic Review are for the Australian government to ‘accept’ or ‘note’ those recommendations before the 47th session of the Human Rights Council in June and July. We are calling on the Australian government to work collaboratively with civil society in deciding how to respond and to work with us from there to support implementation of these critical child rights issues,” says Simon. 

“There will continue to be pressure from civil society and the international community for Australia to meet its obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child and other human rights bodies and treaties. The Universal Periodic Review outcomes showed that Australia has failed to address significant ongoing child rights violations, but the recommendations from foreign governments provide a roadmap for a better path that Australian governments can take.” 

The most shocking abuse of child rights in Australia today

Over the next few years Save the Children will mount further pressure on the Australian government to remedy its record in youth justice. “One of the most egregious abuses of child rights happening at the moment is the treatment of children in the youth justice system,” says Simon. “And that is why we're so strong on the issue of raising the age of criminal responsibility. Raising the age will make a significant difference to children across Australia, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are disproportionally affected.”

Also in our targets is greater consideration of the wellbeing of children when responding to emergencies and crises, including the ongoing effects of bushfires and other disasters. 

Internationally, we will continue to advocate for the protection of children in protracted humanitarian crises. The crises that we see in countries such as Yemen or Syria have long-lasting detrimental effects on children in terms of their livelihood, their wellbeing, nutrition, education, and child protection, and we must ensure children are protected at all costs. 

How our supporters make a difference  

The wheels of change can turn slowly in spaces where we want to make change for children – in youth justice, protracted crises, climate change – but Simon is hopeful. “Every time we have a small victory that gives us additional hope. We are always thinking of the rights of children and what is in the best interests of children. When we make our message strong, clear and backed by evidence, we can be convincing and drive policy change.”

Knowing that there’s a strong well of public support through petitions, conversations and the media is another cause for hope. 
“We encourage advocates to follow our work through our social media accounts. We also share submissions, reports and other content through our website so our supporters can stay informed,” says Simon. 

“Together we can protect and promote the rights of children in places like Parliament, in UN meetings and before key decision makers, or anywhere else where their future may be determined. We want to ensure that every child, even those we never see and never meet, is empowered, protected, resilient, and happy.”

Simon Henderson

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